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by Peter Sobczynski

"Meet the Baron"
4 stars

Ever since “Citizen Kane” became officially enshrined as “the greatest American film” following its revival and reevaluation in the late 1950s, a virtual cottage industry of books, articles and documentaries has developed dedicated to chronicling its history. Most of these, not surprisingly, have focused on Orson Welles, both in the way that he revolutionized the art of cinema forever with the innovations that he single-handedly brought to his first film project and in the titanic battle that arose between him and William Randolph Hearst, the powerful publishing tycoon who was its obvious inspiration. And yet, the most famous of these examinations, Pauline Kael’s controversial 1971 essay “Raising Kane,” was one that raised the then-heretical notion that the true genius behind “Citizen Kane” was Herman J. Mankiewicz, the legendary Hollywood scribe and raconteur who was credited as co-screenwriter with Welles (indeed, they wound up winning the film’s only Oscar) but who, according to Kael, was said to be the primary influence behind it all.

Although the veracity of Kael’s assertions continues to be hotly debated to this very day, David Fincher’s highly anticipated “Mank” seems to agree with her, at least to a point. Rather than providing a full look at the making of “Kane,” the focus is entirely Mankiewicz over the course of a few weeks in 1940 as he composes the first draft of a work that would prove to be far more personal of a creation than anyone could have possibly anticipated. Granted, a film centered on someone writing another film might not sound especially exciting to anyone outside of cinema buffs (“Adaptation” notwithstanding) but you don’t have to be one to find it to be an fascinating, if occasionally bumpy look at the creation of one of Hollywood’s greatest works and one of its most infamous cases of career self-immolation.

When we first see Mank (Gary Oldman), however, “legendary” is not the first word that will pop into the minds of most people. It is 1940 and although he has been written off by most of the movie industry as a washed-up drunk whose lacerating wit and brilliant turns of phrase are long since been outweighed by his unerring ability to put his foot in his mouth at just the wrong time to just the wrong people, even when he knows what the repercussions will be. (At this point, he cannot even put his foot in his mouth anymore as his leg is encased in a cast due to a recent automobile mishap.) Despite all that, he is installed in a cottage in the remote California town of Victorville at the behest of Welles (Tom Burke), who has just arrived in Hollywood as a 24-year-old wunderkind granted the power to make any project that he wanted, to write the first draft of a screenplay inspired by the life of Hearst, known at the time as “American,” with the assistance of stenographer Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and the supervision of producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton).

Mank goes about writing the script while Houseman constantly despairs over it ever getting finished and Rita keeps things moving along. Meanwhile, we are treated to a series of flashbacks designed to show that this script was far more personal to Welles than the usual assignment. In 1930, having already established himself as a top writer in Hollywood, Mank is invited to San Simeon, the famous Hearst estate, and winds up meeting both the publisher (Charles Dance) and his mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). He and Marion become fast friends and kindred spirits and Mank’s cutting wit impresses Hearst enough to land him a spot as the jester of the baron’s court, where he hobnobs with the titans of industry, including MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and his right-hand man, Irving Thalberg ((Ferdinand Kingsley). Even then, he drinks too much and occasionally goes too far—so frequently that wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) is often referred to as “poor Sara”—but as long as he keeps them laughing and keeps churning out screenplays, his trespasses can be forgiven.

Then comes 1934, when muckraking author Upton Sinclair is mounting a campaign for the California gubernatorial race on a platform based around supporting the working man and ending poverty. Although Mank and his fellow writers are behind Sinclair, but to people like Mayer, Thalberg and Hearst, he is nothing more than a socialist whose fortunes could be in jeopardy if he isn’t stopped. To make matters worse, a one-off comment Mank makes ends up bearing horrible fruit when Mayer begins using the studio and its resources to create fake newsreels designed to sink Sinclair. Although Mank has been able to overlook the depravations of people like Hearst and Mayer in the past—at one point, we see him stand there with an almost perverse sense of admiration as Mayer goes before his employees and emotionally browbeats them into accepting a 50% pay cut—this is too much and his contempt becomes more and more obvious. It finally blows up in spectacular fashion when he drunkenly denounces Hearst and his ilk at a dinner party with a faux pitch for a film project featuring Don Quixote. This move pretty much destroys his reputation with the powers-that-be but also plants the seed for the project that would unite him with Hearst forever in the annals of history.

Considering that David Fincher is one of the best filmmakers working today, it should come as no surprise that in most regards, “Mank” is fairly spectacular. Visually, it is absolutely gorgeous, though it does not, as some have suggested, specifically imitate the cinematic style of the era—the widescreen imagery alone gives that away. Instead, he and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt have combined their talents to lend the project a lovely, almost dreamlike feel that serves as a nice counterpoint to the dirty deals that have helped to fund the glamorous visions that Hollywood churns out for the masses. (I also like the conceit of employing faux-screenplay directions to set up the various shifts in time and locale.) Fincher handles the dense and occasionally complicated material with enough of a deft hand that even those with no working knowledge of Mank, Hearst, Mayer or even “Citizen Kane” itself can follow along easily enough even though it largely eschews scenes that exist solely to parcel out iuecessary information to the audience. There is a feeling of true commitment to the material on Fincher’s part that just has not been on display in more recent excellent-but-workmanlike efforts as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.”

The film is also graced with a number of outstanding performances as well, led by Oldman’s brilliant turn in the title role. Sure, purists may gripe that he is a couple of decades too old to play Mank, though the sight of those extra years does help to visually underscore just how hard Mank lived his life and how out of step he was in a town that valued surface images above all else. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because the power of his performance casts concerns about his age to the side. He is great at channeling both the intelligence and self-loathing that drove Mank before eventually destroying him and when the focus shifts to the Sinclair campaign, his gradual realizations that a.) he actually cares about something after all and b.) that he has been outsmarted by the very people he had always taken as pompous buffoons leads to the dinner party flameout that may be the single best scene that he has ever performed on film. As Marion, Seyfried does an equally good job of demonstrating the actress’s often-underestimated intelligence and wit, which she employs to help her deal with the choices that she has made in life even as, ironically, they are overlooked by Hearst, who insists on putting her in stuffy costume dramas instead of the comedies for which she was much better suited. All of the supporting performances are excellent as well, with Burke’s cheerfully flamboyant turn as Welles a standout among them.

Ironically, the one place in which “Mank” falters is in regards to the screenplay. The film was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, and in many ways, it is very strong—it is filled with fascinating characters delivering witty, pungent dialogue while at the same time avoiding just becoming a nostalgia piece with observations regarding art, politics and power that are as relevant today as ever. At the same time, it just feels as if there is something missing to it. The screenplay sort of apes the famously intricate structure of “Citizen Kane” with its series of flashback that gradually unlock a mystery of sorts. The difference is that in the case of “Kane,” it all pulled together into a fascinating whole that continues to challenge and inspire to this very day. “Mank,” on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to have that sort of connective thread and when it was all over, I had the sense that what I had seen was more like a collection of great individual scenes rather than a fully satisfying story. For example, while I realize that the focus of the film is meant to rest solely on Mank, it seems bizarre that there are no scenes in the film that show Mank and Welles meeting or hatching the idea to do a movie about Hearst. This doesn’t exactly hurt the film but considering just how nuanced and detailed it is in other regards, to skim over such seemingly important points as these seems strangely perverse.

In the end, “Mank” is no “Citizen Kane,” I suppose, but considering how few films have comes close to earning that comparison, that is hardly a criticism. What it is, however, is a compulsively watchable look at a piece of Hollywood history—some of it famous and some kept under wraps—through the eyes of one of its wittiest raconteurs that is filled with just enough of a palpable sense of love for old Hollywood to satisfy film nerds but while still telling a story accessible enough to potentially be the film that wins Fincher a long-overdue Best Director Oscar. ”Mank” may not be the definitive word on “Citizen Kane,” Herman Mankiewicz or Orson Welles but it is a film that is ultimately worthy of them all.

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originally posted: 11/13/20 08:07:40
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